Vignette 10.2 Brides and Adopted Children from the FSU in the United States

I have met more than a dozen American men who have married Russian wives over the past few years. I also know a few people who have adopted children from one of the FSU. Most of these families are genuinely happy, and I am very glad for them. They reflect the widespread post-Soviet phenomenon of connecting American and Russian/other FSU societies through marriage or adoption. Just how widespread this phenomenon is can be objectively tracked down through statistics released by the U.S. Department of State on visas issued to the brides and adopted children. With respect to adoptions, Russia is one of the three leading suppliers of children to American families in recent years, behind only China and Guatemala (Figure 1): from a low of 746 children adopted in 1993 to a high of 5,865 in 2004. Why has Russia (and the rest of the FSU) become such a popular source of adopted children? First, the FSU nations have a large number of orphans (over 1 million in Russia), who are under the poor care of the state system and in need of families. Second, Russia and other FSU nations allow their children to be adopted, whereas many other countries do not. Third, these children are usually white and of European origin, which may be a preference for U.S. parents from European backgrounds. Most other countries that have children available for adoption are Asian or Latin American countries. Also, there are quite a few American families who have an interest in Russia or other FSU republics because of the family history or religion (Orthodox Christian or Jewish). Most children who are adopted from the FSU by U.S. parents, however, will rapidly lose their native language. A few may retain it if adopted later in life and/or if given plenty of opportunities to practice it.

A cross-cultural marriage is an even more complex affair than an adoption. Making any marriage work requires a great deal of both partners. More than half of all marriages in the United States end up in divorce, and international marriages are even more complicated and have an even greater probability of failure than intranational marriages, because the spouses do not share a common culture. When an American husband wants to watch baseball with a Ukrainian wife, for example, she has no clue about what goes on in the game, because she does not know the rules; when she makes him a delicious (to her) Ukrainian borscht, he may think it is too meaty or too salty; and so forth. Of course, cultural differences may also be to a couple's advantage and make the marriage strong and long-lasting. Of particular concern, however, are the cases involving so-called mail-order brides (Osipovich, 2005), especially those that result in immigration fraud (as in arranged fake marriages) or domestic abuse. By definition, mail-order marriages are arranged by a third party, usually a matchmaking agency. They account for a small proportion of all international marriages (perhaps only 4%), but they can create social problems for all involved. For example, some agencies are little more than temporary “bait” Websites that con men into paying money up front and then disappear without a trace. One such long-standing scam involved luring unsuspecting American men with provocative photos of Valeria, a married Russian pop singer, into making up-front payments of a few thousand dollars for her tickets and U.S. visa. Another problem is that even if the woman at the other end is real, her motives or personality may be different from what is advertised. There are books published in America about how to avoid being a victim of such scams, just as there are books written in Russia about how to catch a wealthy American guy to get the coveted U.S. “green card” and then dump the husband, citing marital problems, abuse, or worse.

Conversely, of course, many of these women suffer genuine abuse from their foreign husbands through physical or verbal assault and intimidation. Typical Western men seeking wives abroad are middle-aged, are not physically attractive, and have at least one unsuccessful marriage behind them. Or, they may have some social handicaps that have prevented them from ever having a spouse in the first place. They also may have lower-than-average incomes and low self-esteem, and although they are wealthier than the average FSU citizen, they are not in a position to provide the glamorous lifestyle that some brides may envision (Osipovich, 2005). Given all these factors, it is not surprising that domestic strife and outright abuse often occur.

Documented exploitation of foreign wives has recently led the U.S. Congress to adjust the immigration law to assist women trapped in abusive relationships without jeopardizing their residency status. One stereotype that many Western men, and the Western mass media, have about women from the FSU is that these women are models of old-fashioned femininity—undemanding, quiet, and compliant.

This is simply not true and does not help at all. However, a foreign wife may indeed experience greater difficulty than a native-born wife in communicating her needs to her husband, or reporting his abuses to the authorities, because of the language barrier. Osipovich (2005) highlights the fact that many American-born women also experience abusive relationships, but that they may be better able to deal with these situations because they have a better knowledge of English and of U.S. society.